The Cat’s Back

Dec 13, 2006 at 12:00 am

The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens has gotten a raw deal over the last few decades. On 1970s albums such as Catch Bull at Four and Buddha and the Chocolate Box, he came off as an honest spiritual seeker, an open and kind individual who was trying to connect to his higher purpose while helping make people happy at the same time.

But once he finally found his spiritual home and became a Muslim in 1977, people rode him unmercifully in a way they wouldn't have if he'd done something a little more becoming of a rock star — you know, like overdosing on heroin, or hanging out with some maharishi or other. Some even stopped looking at him as a human and a songwriter, and instead began seeing him as some kind of geopolitical symbol. Can't figure out why the ayatollah is so kooky? Ask Cat Stevens!

Now, after proclaiming that he had retired from pop music forever, the artist now known as Yusuf Islam (or simply Yusuf) returns with An Other Cup, his first secular record in 28 years. And what's remarkable isn't that he changed his mind. It's that Cup is such an extraordinarily fine record — better than could reasonably be expected from an aging soft-rocker. He eschews fake modernism throughout, and doesn't try to pretend that he's "hip." There are no awkwardly modern hip-hop overlays or glaring celebrity guest spots. Instead, Islam sticks to his strengths — comforting meditations on life delivered over a pretty, richly textured musical backing that incorporates elements of folk, blues and international music.

Islam's voice resonates nearly unchanged from his heyday — all that clean living has certainly paid off in that department — and his songwriting is refreshed from the long break. An Other Cup kicks off strong with the jaunty midtempo samba of "Midday" before moving on to songs like the single "Heaven/Where True Love Goes" and "I Think I See the Light," where he follows the example of the Sufi mystic poet Rumi, blurring the line between romantic love and love for God. The album's lone cover song, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," transcends the regretful weariness of Nina Simone's original and the youthful petulance of the Animals' hit version, with Islam recasting it as the plaintive supplication of a man trying his best, giving the "Oh Lord!" part of the chorus a weight missing in the other versions. And on both "Maybe There's a World" and "Greenfields, Golden Sands," Islam returns to idealism, describing a world where everybody gets along. It doesn't sound that much different from the ideal place he would have depicted in 1974.

Even though he has seen massive suffering in places like Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo through the work of Small Kindness, his U.N.-registered charity, Islam still has faith in social harmony.

His faith is his primary driver, obviously. "The Beloved" is one of the album's most overtly Islamic songs, and harks back to his fascinating 1997 spoken-word recording, The Life of the Last Prophet. ("Beloved" also incorporates an international feel in its music, thanks in part to guest vocals by Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour.)

And yet, even when Islam is at his most dogmatic, like on the simplistically dualistic "The End," he makes a point to say, "If you want to help your fellow man, you better start with what's in your hand." What he doesn't do is talk about drinking the blood of infidels or wiping Israel from the map. An Other Cup is just so normal, so musical — like even though he's a Muslim, he's (gasp) a regular person who sings out when he wants to. And that could be the most important thing Yusuf Islam has ever done for the promotion of human understanding throughout his career.

Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]